June 30, 2005

Real Pro-Family Politics

Conservatives love children until they're born. But how about supporting a policy to help moms and dads stay home with the kids for those critical months after they're born?

The Family and Medical Leave Act allowing UNPAID time off was a good start, but now Congressional leaders have introduced the PAID Family and Medical Leave Act of 2005 to give people 55% of their wages for 12 weeks time off, whether to care for a newborn or adopted child, take care of a sick family member, or take care of their own short-term disability.

The program builds on a successful model in California which just began providing 5 weeks of paid leave for workers.

This is a winning issue for progressives which we should be pushing as hard as we can. Pro-family and pro-worker. Let's see the rightwing show their true colors by opposing this one.

Posted by Nathan at 05:00 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Must Solar Be Anti-Union?

California is debating a Schwarzenegger-backed bill to subsidize solar panels on homes and businesses across the state-- on a level that could supply energy equivalent to 10 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

Sounds good, but in a classic move to pit labor and environmental interests, the GOP cosponsors, as this article details, oppose a requirement that public money only go to installers paying prevailing union wages in the state.

Labor in California has fought a long struggle to require that, if government pays for it, the labor has to meet union wage levels.

Now, the GOP wants to open a multi-billion dollar loophole in the rule: somehow the hipness of solar panels makes using public money for sweatshop labor acceptable.

This is a perfect chance for environmentalists to stand up for the principle that green policy can also be a pro-labor policy, but few environmental leaders have stepped up to champion prevailing wages for the workers who would actually install all these solar panels across the state.

And the enviros wonder why some labor unions joined the GOP in supporting drilling in ANWR when they promised that all those jobs would pay union wages. It's kind of pathetic that George W. Bush and the GOP is more willing to support union jobs in their energy policy than the lefty solar power lobby.

Posted by Nathan at 08:45 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

American Business: Flunked Out Of Kindergarten?

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space. 

It all makes me sick:

    The money was spent in the name of improving security at the nation's airports:

  • $526.95 for one phone call from the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Chicago to Iowa City.

  • $1,180 for 20 gallons of Starbucks Coffee -- $3.69 a cup -- at the Santa Clara Marriott in California.

  • $1,540 to rent 14 extension cords at $5 each per day for three weeks at the Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Telluride, Colo.

  • $8,100 for elevator operators at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan.

  • $5.4 million claimed for nine months' salary for the chief executive of an "event logistics" firm that received a contract before it was incorporated and went out of business after the contract ended.

Those details are contained in a federal audit that calls into question $303 million of the $741 million spent to assess and hire airport passenger screeners for the newly created Transportation Security Administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The audit, along with interviews with people involved in the passenger-screener contract, paints a rare and detailed portrait of how officials at the fledgling agency lost control of the spending in the pell-mell rush to hire 60,000 screeners to meet a one-year congressional deadline.

Just a couple of initial thoughts on this. First, more personal. I worked for 16 years at a labor union that was the recipient of numerous government grants. The union's rules were that we had to keep track of, justify and show receipts for every expense, down to a $3 taxi ride. I though it was a pain in the ass, until our first government audit which we passed with flying colors.

The second thought is more political. Corporate America is always and incessently criticizing "big government" and over-regulation, and extolling the virtues of contracting out.

Obviously TSA should have been minding the store better, but come on guys, is corporate America composed of a bunch of executives with unsocialized 5-year old mentalities, children that have to be watched at every moment lest they run away with the candy shop?

And one more thought while I'm ranting. When corruption, no matter how small, is uncovered in any union, the right wing uses it to scream about corrupt labor bosses, and how workers who want a voice in their worklife are being bamboozled by criminals. Elaine Chao's Labor Department has focused like a laser beam on raising burdensome recordkeeping requirements on unions to absurd levels given the relatively small amount (in scale and frequency) of union corruption -- requirements praised to the heavens by NAM and the Chamber of Commerce.

As Nathan Newman wrote last Spring:

Can you imagine what would be said if liberals were demanding similar disclosure from every corporation? Actually, we already know since they are already whining about the Sarbanes-Oxley bill passed in the wake of the Enron-WorldCom scandals, and the disclosure to the public required for those forms are far less extensive.

Even as the Bush administration fails to fund inspectors to enforce the minimum wage or workplace safety, it's diverting money to audit unions-- clear political revenge against its perceived enemies. It has no evidence of any pervasive problems in union finances, but it's manufacturing a supposed crisis to justify its political attack.

The goal is not to save union members money-- a laudable goal that I would support -- but to cost those members money through increasing red tape and auditing costs. Such costs will clearly outstrip any potential savings in a union movement that has a financial integrity record that we only wish the corporate world could match.
I'm going to be keeping my eye on the National Association of Manufacturers blog. I expect to see an apology to the American people and to America's labor unions. I won't be holding my breath.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Card Check Works

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space. 

Jonathan Tasini has a piece about a Congressional Research Service report on card check that the Republicans are trying to cover up.

And guess what it concludes: Card check recognition leads to more unionization than the standard representation elections.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, labor law says that in order to form a union, there has to be an election. In reality, even when a majority of workers initally want a union, management campaigns of intimidation, firings, etc. tend to turn the vote against the union, even when a majority of workers had initially expressed interest. If management voluntarily agrees to a card check, however, a union is established if a majority of workers just sign cards supporting the union. Consequently, instead of organizing around an election, more and more unions are organizing to force management to agree to a card check.

The Republicans naturally find this whole process extremely upsetting and unAmerican and have introduced legislation to ban it.

So it goes.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 06:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 29, 2005

More Bush Lies: Suppressed CAFTA Labor Rights Report

Well if they lie about the reasons to go to war, we shouldn't be surprised if they lie about trade agreements:

The Labor Department worked for more than a year to maintain secrecy for studies that were critical of working conditions in Central America, the region the Bush administration wants in a new trade pact...The government-paid studies concluded that countries proposed for free-trade status have poor working environments and fail to protect workers' rights...

Behind the scenes, the Labor Department began as early as spring 2004 to block public release of the country-by-country reports.

The department instructed its contractor to remove the reports from its Web site, ordered it to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned release of new information from the reports, and even told the contractor it could not discuss the studies with outsiders.

This is part of a pattern of Bush Administration dishonesty.  It's not enough to disagree with a report's conclusions.  They have to suppress the information, so that the public doesn't even have alternative information to evaluate the policy.

The contractor, the International Labor Rights Fund, has finally gotten the reports released and you can read them here.

As the ILRF argues, sugar interests in the United States may get bought off in any deal over CAFTA, but "Central American sugar workers will have no new alternatives to relieve them of the burden of the  daily violations they face, as described in these reports."  Read the reports and understand why a trade deal without labor rights is just a deal to reward multinational corporations who steal the labor of workers in developing nations, not a help to those workers.

Posted by Nathan at 02:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Congress Gets Raise- What about Min Wage?

Under the law, Congress gets an automatic pay increase tied to inflation, which amounts to $3100 more pay next year, or $165,200 per year.

Now, there's nothing wrong with indexing pay to inflation, but what Congress does for itself, it refuses to do for minimum wage workers. Today's $5.15 per hour minimum wage is 41% less in inflation-ajusted terms than the minimum wage in 1968, when it's real value was $8.78.

Since 1997, the last time the minimum wage was raised, Congressional pay has risen from $133,600, or a 24% increase in pay. If the minimum wage had even kept up with Congressional pay increases since then, the minimum wage should be at least $6.37 per hour.

But instead, while Congress's pay automatically increases each year, minimum wage workers see inflation cutting their real pay year after year after year.

Posted by Nathan at 07:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 24, 2005

Attack on Family/Medical Leave Act

One of the federal workplace victories of the 1990s was the Family and Medical Leave Act, a basic right of people to have a child or get sick without fear of losing their job.

Now, business lobbies are mounting a new campaign to rollback the law and their focus is limiting rights for people with chronic illnesses. The Department of Labor is beginning to rewrite regulations on the FMLA law, while Republicans in Congress are holding hearings that attack employee "intermitent" use of the FMLA for care that may involve an hour or two a week of doctor's visits or therapy:

The groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, want a more precise description of what would qualify as a serious illness.

One suggestion: that the law cover only illnesses serious enough to require 10 or more days off...

"Opponents see this as an opportunity to make major changes that would dramatically roll back protection for working families," says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. "This could wind up affecting millions of workers. Employers could refuse to grant FMLA, and you'd have no job protection."

Basically, unless your illness is immediately about to kill you TOMORROW, you wouldn't be given time off to visit a doctor or therapy, essentially gutting the FMLA for anyone not on death's door.

The sad fact is that the FMLA doesn't even require companies to pay you for time off. Yet employers begrudge employees even unpaid time off to visit a doctor.

And compare this to conservative rhetoric around rolling back overtime pay in favor of "flextime." Only when workers are getting a pay cut does the rightwing suddenly talk about families needing flexibility to deal with health or other family needs.

But they shudder with horror at the thought that employers should show such flexibility with workers seeking flextime using the FMLA.

Which just reflects that the rightwing's only consistent position is to cut pay for workers and fatten shareholder profits-- when they talk about anything else, it's all just cynical rhetoric.

Posted by Nathan at 06:42 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 23, 2005

Why Can't Folks Understand Trade and Labor Rights

Since Matt Y endorsed Tyler Cowen's list of CAFTA issues (even if Matt ends up against the treaty), I thought Cowen's point on labor rights was worth citing as a perfect example of the ignorance of pro-treaty proponents:

Don't worry that the agreement does little for labor rights or environmental protection in Central America. Imposing such policies, before the recipient countries are wealthy enough to support them, is usually counterproductive.
The core labor rights demanded by unions, in all countries, is for the right of free speech in the workplace, the right not to be fired for demanding respect. Is that too expensive for any country? Are core human rights a luxury-- and do pro-treaty folks extend that to political free speech as well? No one is demanding that Central America raise its minimum wage to the same level as the US -- however pathetic that is getting these days. What is demanded is that workers in Central America get to decide what wage is acceptable to THEM; if they think high wages will drive jobs overseas, they won't demand it. But the decision should be theirs, not an authoritarian government or multinational corporation that can fire them at will without respect to their free speech rights to advocate being in a union.
Posted by Nathan at 02:15 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

White House Pressuring LULAC to Reverse CAFTA Position

Was passed this interesting story from a high level unnamed source:  Last year, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest and generally more conservative latino groups, joined the anti-CAFTA forces with a strong resolution at its national conference criticizing the labor and environmental provisions of CAFTA and declaring the trade deal unacceptable. 

But apparently its corporate donors and the White House have been pressuring the national leadership to reverse its position.   The leadership has decided to revote on the issue although they haven't scheduled a vote yet.  A number of members of Congress have written to LULAC to urge them to maintain their anti-CAFTA stand.  The President of LULAC, Hector Flores, was apparently pissed at staff for leaking the potential shift in position, which is rumored to be tied to a political appointment for Flores by President Bush if LULAC switches its position.

A switch by LULAC would be a major loss for anti-CAFTA forces, especially now when the vote is likely to be so close (the reason no doubt for the heavy White House pressure on LULAC). 

If your concerned about White House pressure against grassroots groups, a polite email dropped to Hector Flores would no doubt be useful at this time.

Posted by Nathan at 12:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 22, 2005

Employers Expect More Organizing from "Divided" Labor

Via Working Life blog, we have this analysis by union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis:

If the [Change to Win] Coalition’s members follow through on their threats to disaffiliate from the Federation later this year, employers can expect an increased interest in union organizing. This could be especially true for the nation’s largest non-union employers. For employers with existing unionized workforces, this means increased pressure to execute some form of neutrality and card-check recognition agreement.  For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely.

Employers are not expecting this to be good for them, which is good news for labor folks.

Posted by Nathan at 08:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

GOP Rep: Unions "Weapons of Mass Destruction"

Senator Durbin condemns torture and is eviscerated by the rightwing.

However, a rightwing Congressman can hyperbolically compare labor unions to terrorist weapons and it doesn't make the news.  Yesterday, at a hearing on the so-called "Truth in Employment Act", one of its main sponsors, BNA's Daily Labor Report reported that Steve King (R-IA) referred to union organizers who sought employment at non-union employers as "economic weapons of mass destruction."  

The proposed bill would allow employers to fire any employee who sought to be hired as part of a union organizing drive, a tactic called "salting" in the labor field.  In any union drive, employers have day-to-day access to propagandize and threaten employees.  "Salting" -- ie. getting an organizer hired by an employer -- has been one of the few tactics available to unions to make sure someone is at the workplace able to give the pro-labor side of the story to fellow workers at a job site. 

But creating any fairness or free speech in the workplace is considered equivalent to terrorism by the rightwing, a telling example of where any war on terrorism will go if they have any further strength.   Not only does the rightwing want to silence whistle blowers on the government payroll, they want to eviscerate the rights of any private employee who promotes unionism in the workplace. 

The insidious part of the bill is that any promise by a union to help an allied worker supporting a union drive find alternative employment if they are fired -- a reasonably common practice by unions given the high rate of firings of union activists -- would convert those employees into "salts" and, ironically, make them even more vulnerable to firings by the employer. 

So pro-union employees would be stuck in a catch-22; if they are pro-union, they risk being fired illegally by their employers (as 22,000 union activists do each year) but if the union promises to help them find alternative work to ease the risk, that would give the employer the right to fire them without even risking the minor fines currently assessed against illegal firings.

It boggles the mind how anti-worker is the rightwing GOP, yet the regular media can't even be bothered to report on the constant drumbeat of anti-worker rhetoric coming from these rightwing politicians.

Posted by Nathan at 06:43 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 20, 2005

Philadelphia Labor Great Jim Moran Retires As Director of Philaposh

Jordan Barab (Reprinted from Confined Space)

The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.
-- A. Phillip Randolph

This isn't exactly labor news of great national significance, but it is news for Philadelphia area workers: the retirement of Philaposh Director Jim Moran.

Philaposh, for those who don't know, is the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, the second oldest COSH group in the United States. COSH groups are local coalitions of labor, environmental and public health advocates who organize and provide technical assistance to worker on workplace safety and health issues. For workers who don't belong to unions (and for many who do), COSH groups are their only available resource for health and safety issues.

I've known Jim for over twenty years and had heard of him before that. Philaposh earned its first fame in the struggle for Philadelphia's right-to-know law in the late '70's. When it was their turn to testify during a crucial city council hearing, Philaposh representatives brought along a tank of compressed gas and opened it up in front of the skeptical Councilmen. "What is this stuff?" they demanded to know.

The point was made more effectively than any boring testimony would have done. The Philadelphia Right-to-Know law passed - the first in the nation.

A couple of years later, OSHA came under its first organized legislative attack with the so-called Schweiker Bill, named after its main sponsor Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker. Instead of settling for normal lobbying, Philaposh took its case directly to Schweiker -- directly to his home, to be precise. The Senator -- and the press -- were not amused. But the Schweicker bill never passed.

Philaposh's most (in)famous exploit came about ten years ago.

In 1995, North Carolina Republican Congressman Cass Ballenger, newly in command of the House committee that covered OSHA after the 1994 elections which brought the Republicans to power in the House and Senate, introduced OSHA Deform legislation. Labor and COSH groups fought back with letters, demonstrations, testimony and petitions. But Philaposh had a better idea: a "wanted" poster with Ballenger's picture on it, declaring that the congressman was wanted "for conspiracy to maim, injure and kill American workers. There was also a button and a petition to go with the poster. It didn't receive much notice until then-OSHA director Joe Dear put the button on at a conference of the American Public Health Association, prompting Ballenger to investigate whether Philaposh or APHA were receiving any federal funds. (They weren't)

According to an article published at the time,

Some in the labor movement criticize tactics like the wanted poster, Moran noted. But, he said, "When people are out to hurt you, you have to do something more than write a letter to your congressman. We have to expose these guys more and call them what they are, and not be afraid that we were impolite. They're coming at us with tanks and we got peashooters."


"Obviously he was out to hurt us," said Moran. ButPhilaPOSH, a 21-year-old non-profit organization supported by 150 unions, didn't have any federal grants. Ballenger also demanded (and got) an apology from Joe Dear. The conflict got headlines earlier this year. By March 19, Ballenger withdrew the bill.

Moran doesn't think PhilaPOSH's "wanted" campaign was solelyresponsible for killing Ballenger's bill, "but we do think it was probably what pushed it over the edge. It drew him out," Moran said.

But of course, those are just the big stories. What makes Moran and Philaposh special are the thousands of smaller battles fought and won, the lives saved, the bodies protected.

There was one thing that struck me at the retirement party -- particularly at a time when the AFL-CIO seems to be giving up on the idea that health and safety has any role in organizing.

Normally at a retirement party for a COSH director, you'd hear lots of speeches from members of the health and safety activist "cult" about how he helped win this or that health and safety battle. We certainly heard those stories, but the remarkable thing about the evening is that most of the speakers -- who were labor leaders from the Southeastern Pennsylvania, and southern Jersey areas, including officials of the state AFL-CIO and leaders of several regional labor councils -- told stories that were mostly about Jim teaching them not just about workplace safety and health, but first and formost how to be progressive trade unionists, how to use their members' health and safety problems to mobilize and organize them, and how to use the union to save members' lives.

And Jim's activities weren't just confined to safety and health, or even just traditional labor issues. Stories were told of him leading a bunch of co-conspirators in a raid to open up an abandoned house for the use of homeless persons one frigid Philadelphia night.

On a personal note, Jim was always an inspiration and a reminder to me of who I'm really working (and writing) for -- something that's all too easy to forget living in Washington D.C. And amidst the storming and struggles here in DC over the future of the labor movement, it was enormously refreshing to sit back for an evening and listen to stories of the small and large struggles and victories of workers and organizers where the labor movement is alive, dynamic and focused on workers' lives. For a few moments, D.C. seemed a million miles away.

Finally, I'd be remiss (and in trouble) if I didn't note that retiring along with Jim is his wife of 42 years, Aggie Moran. Aggie has been a Philaposh volunteer since 1992 and before that was an IBEW shop steward at Progress Lighting before retiring after 17 years with multiple musculoskeletal injuries. And as Jim said last night, "Without Aggie Moran, there would be no Jim Moran."

So, good luck, Jim and Aggie. we'll all miss you, but more important, as was said last night, 'the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor' will miss you.

The history of the labor movement is one of great achievements for the entire working class, strengthening the rights of the whole society, not just union members. We're proud of our great victories like the 8-hour day, public education, child labor laws, unemployment compensation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Social Security, one of the last standing monuments of the "New Deal." But again, they want to "privatize" Social Security.

The only movement that will police the social contract listed above is the labor movement. When that contract is broken and union busting prevails, look out! Show me a Country without a labor movement and I'll show you a Dictatorship.

Far from being obsolete, unions are the most important weapon we have to defeat all of the social ills mentioned above, not to mention the ongoing struggle for social justice over issues like racism and sexism.

Jim Moran, Who Needs 'Labor Day'?

Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

CAFTA and Labor Law Enforcement

The joke of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is that it's labor rights standards only require governments to enforce their labor laws as they exist, however pathetic those standards may be.

But to add insult to this ridiculous standard, the Bush administration proposed this year to slash $80.8 million from  the $93.2 million currently spent by the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs to investigate labor law enforcement by foreign governments. 

So a toothless set of labor standards will have equally toothless enforcement.  And the House Appropriations Committee approved this cut in the Labor Department on June 16th.  "It's a strange way to search for votes for CAFTA," Ranking Democratic David Obey noted. 

From BNA Daily Labor Report (subscription required).

Posted by Nathan at 06:44 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 17, 2005

Speaking of Innovative Organizing

Since UNITE-HERE got a little dissed in one of the threads, I thought this agreement with the Angelica laundering and uniform company was worth highlighting.

Along with an agreement for the two-thirds of Angelica's facilities where the union already is recognized, the agreement guarantees simpler procedures for organizing its non-union facilities:

Two policies will govern those elections.

In right-to-work states, workers are able to say individually whether they want union representation. In those states, Angelica agreed to card-check recognition.

In remaining states, Unite Here will organize future Angelica facilities with private, non-NLRB supervised elections.

This is an interesting twist; since union recognition in "right to work" states never leads to anyone being required to join a union, conservative complaints about card check agreements denying people a vote don't make any sense -- to the extent they make sense even in union shop states where everyone gets to vote on union leadership and contracts in any case.

In that sense, it raises the question why any employers in right-to-work states have anti-union employees having the right to vote against other workers unionizing?

Posted by Nathan at 01:19 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Good Folks on Both Sides of Split

Just a quick response to some sniping in the thread initiated by Leo: while I generally fall on the SEIU et al side of the strategic debate within the AFL-CIO, I do want to emphasize that union leaders on both sides are admirable for the work they've done in recent years.

To take an example, my last job on a union payroll was at CWA (one of the key Sweeney loyalist unions) in their legal department and I have nothing but respect for CWA's tenacious work in not only holding onto traditional union jobs in the industry but making some headway into cellular and broadband jobs. Given the turmoil in high-tech in the 1990s, the whole industry could be non-union today if union-busting companies like World Com-MCI had ended up dominating telecommunications. But through tough strike actions and smart corporate campaigns, CWA held on tight and continue to organize hard in an incredibly tough environment.

The issue is not just which unions are adding the most members. Unions operating in the public sector generally have a much less hostile environment (and that includes part of SEIU's gains), while unions just holding their own in certain manufacturing sectors facing offshoring of jobs deserve credit.

The issue is a more subjective one of whether each union could be doing better in their respective sectors? Do they have a strategic plan for not only organizing well in the United States but for international organizing if that's where their jobs are going? And if their industry is in a permanent tailspin, is the union moving into organizing related industries where their existing power gives them leverage to make membership gains?

In honesty, the real debate shouldn't be between various union leaders but between leaders and their membership, some of the latter will have additional questions of how well each union is promoting internal democratic debate and mobilization to achieve any of these ends.

For me, the debate is more important than any individual answer, since different industries may need quite different solutions. It's harsh medicine, but it may take a split in the AFL-CIO to force that debate in every union. And I actually have some faith that precisely because there are great folks among both the "old guard" and the "dissidents", that the result wil be better organizing and success by both camps if the current debate forces all of them to confront these questions.

Posted by Nathan at 10:51 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Partial Victory of LA Hotel Workers

The Los Angeles hotel workers have ratified their long-expired contracts and won a partial victory on lining up the expiration of the contract with other major cities around the country-- setting up the whole industry for a nationwide showdown next year.

Unlike the rest of the major cities whose contracts come up mid-2006, Los Angeles contracts will expire in November of next year. Which means that LA workers will be spared from job actions early in negotiations, but that gives leverage to workers in other cities to push negotiations on industry hotels, who know that if they delay resolution, the fight will only get worse when Los Angeles workers join the fight.

Hotel contracts have been negotiated city-by-city for decades; if the hotel unions are able to negotiate nationwide contracts, not only will this give them greater leverage in cities where they currently are organized, it will give them leverage to force hotel chains to agree to neutrality and card check agreements in cities where the unions are currently weak or non-existent.

Hopefully, San Francisco workers will be able to settle their contracts on similar terms.

Posted by Nathan at 10:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 15, 2005


It is too early, I would argue, to conclude that the shots over the bow by SEIU and five other unions in the form of establishing an independent organizing committee means that an AFL-CIO split is imminent, as Nathan seems to think. An equally plausible reading of these moves...

would be that the SEIU and allied internationals are trying to exercise leverage to force Sweeney out, given that they currently lack the votes to do so. Of course, when you start playing a game of 'chicken' with these sorts of stakes, it sometimes spins out of control, and one ends up taking actions one didn't really intend to take, simply to save face and to show that one's threats have to be taken seriously. Part of the question one must consider is the extent to which  the 'out of control' and reckless image that Andy Stern has acquired is real, or cultivated for political effect to achieve his goals in the AFL-CIO. 

But I am much less sanguine than Nathan about what a division in the AFL-CIO would mean, in part because I view the SEIU led forces with a great deal more skepticism. I remain unconvinced that its strategy for new organizing is all that different from that of the AFL-CIO leadership, and that the consolidation of internationals, with clearer organizing jurisdictions, is what is essential for American labor to reverse its decline and grow. And when everything is said and done, it is only that strategy of consolidation and reoganizing jurisidictions that differentiates the SEIU led camp from the rest of the AFL-CIO. [My own union, the AFT, would certainly benefit if the UAW and the Steelworkers were not organizing graduate students in a mad rush to stem some of the hemorrhaging of their members, but that is a different matter than the labor movement turning itself around.]

The reality is that there are more internationals with strong organizing records in the AFL-CIO leadership camp than there is the SEIU led camp. The AFT, AFSCME and the CWA, all of which have organized many new members over the last decade, are now among the supporters of the AFL-CIO leadership, while among the internationals in the SEIU camp, only the SEIU has a similarly positive record. While one can not fault UNITE-HERE for having undertaken a serious organizing effort in textiles, the limited results of that work points to the fact that there are a lot of factors outside of the control of the labor movement that make organizing in manufacturing industries and in the private sector extraordinarily challenging. And it is especially ironic [and not exactly convincing] to see the United Food and Commercial Workers Union join the SEIU camp and proclaim the new organizing religion, as it has one of the poorer records here, especially when it allowed the recent pivotal supermarket strike in southern California go down to a crushing defeat, rather than mobilize its own members and the rest of the labor movement to win.

Truth be told, the problems that American labor is facing in this regard are part of a much wider crisis of organized labor throughout Europe and North America, as globalization has seriously undercut the conditions for organizing manufacturing and private industry in advanced economies. Consolidating unions and organizing jurisdictions, replacing Sweeney with Wilhlem, or starting an independent union federation, will not wipe away those obstacles.

Equally distressing, for those of who think that union democracy is a crucial issue, and central to a labor movement that can mobilize its own members to do organizing, is that the unions with the worst histories of widespread, endemic corruption, Hoffa's Teamsters and the Laborers [and the Carpenters, now outside of the AFL-CIO], are in the SEIU camp. Not incidentally, they are also the unions with histories of playing footsie with conservative Republicans.

It should also be pointed out that the AFL-CIO leadership has already implemented a great deal of the SEIU led camp's platform, decimating its health and safety, workmen's compensation, policy and international programs to redirect money to organizing. A great many of us think that this move has been harmful to the AFL-CIO. If the problems that the American labor movement faces in organizing manufacturing and the private sector are related to globalization, one should be figuring out to make international work more meaningful -- not eliminating most of it.

The American labor movement is unquestionably in crisis. Whatever one thinks of the specific programmatic initiatives put forward by the SEIU led camp, the debate they have sparked is all for the good. We need to be self-refective and self-critical. But division for the sake of division, that is, division without a meaningful different approach to organizing, such as the CIO had when it broke with the AFL, will be a setback, not an advance, for American labor. Debate, don't divide.

Posted by Leo Casey at 09:40 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Five Unions to Exit AFL-CIO?

Today looks to be a big day for labor as five unions announce their plans to demand reform in the AFL-CIO or leave the federation. And in the meantime, they are forming a committee for joint organizing campaigns -- a nice historical echo of the original Committee for Industrial Organizations which existed within the AFL in the 1930s before it seceded from the federation back then.

The big news is that yesterday the United Food & Commercial Workers authorized its leadership to seceded from the AFL-CIO if the coalition's proposals are rejected. The UFCW wasn't even part of the original New United Partnership dicussions last year, so the fact that they are signed on for secession makes the whole thing more likely.

In the linked article, Harold Myerson worries that this would split "the movement" and make organizing Wal-Mart or fighting Tom Delay harder.

I don't actually buy this. It's not like unions are united today in launching massive organizing drives, which is the argument of the SEIU-led coalition. Today, unions regularly fight each other for the same workers-- CWA fighting HERE-UNITE over California Indian casion workers, SEIU and AFSCME fighting over child care workers, and all sorts of unions fighting over various health care constituencies.

Ironically, a split in the AFL-CIO could lead to more unity. The SEIU-led coalition goal is to create organizing unity among its five unions -- plus probably the Carpenters. And the rest of the remaining AFL unions will no doubt feel pressure to unify more of their organizing drives or see the new coalition moving in on their territory. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s when the formation of the CIO led to the AFL back then launching a massive organizing drive, something the CIO unions had been demanding but something those unions refused to do until they had the pressure of an alternative federation breathing down their neck.

This may be unity of two competing blocks, but that's better than 57 separate unions all doing their own thing as happens today.

As for political work, the unions are already working through labor-community coalitions like America Votes and ACT, so as long as both sides continue to do so, they can coordinate political work through those institutions.

So the split in labor is big news, but in many ways it's probably less big news or at least less bad news than many analysts may fear.

Posted by Nathan at 09:21 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

June 10, 2005

Why We Need Unions, Part Deux

(Reprinted From Confined Space)
Harold Meyerson has a column in the Washington Post today describing how public employees have managed to resist Republican attempts to repeal the New Deal, as well as the Wal-Martization of the American workforce:
Policemen, firefighters, teachers, hospital nurses -- they still belong to the one part of the U.S. economy where the New Deal hasn't been repealed. Fully 90 percent of them have defined-benefit pensions as of old. In the private sector, just 60 percent of employees have retirement plans, and a scant 24 percent still cling to defined-benefit plans. Fully 86 percent of public employees are covered by on-the-job health insurance; in the private sector, the rate has fallen to 66 percent.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, public employees make on average $49,275 a year. A sub-princely sum, that, but better than the $34,461 that is the average annual income of private-sector workers.
What's the secret to their success? Unions, of course:
While 37 percent of public-sector workers are unionized, just 8 percent of private-sector workers are. Through their power at the ballot box, public employees have maintained the ability to bargain with their employers, who are either elected officials or their appointees. For all intents and purposes, their private-sector counterparts have lost the power to bargain collectively.
The problem is that Republican politicians who don't generally earn the support of public employee unions are out to get them. It's not too hard to understand why public employee unions are generally hostile to Republicans, especially considering the war against public employees in Missouri and Indiana.
Now,  California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, having failed in his recent attempt to roll back public employees' pensions, as well as losing battles against nurse patient ratios and funding for schools is about to get on the bandwagon supporting a initiative that would curtail the ability of public-sector unions to fund political campaigns. He's hoping that the growing numbers of Californians who don't have the pensions, health care and salaries enjoyed by public employees will grow to resent the privileges that "public servants" are enjoying on their tax dollars.

Meyerson points out that even if the Governator loses this battle,
the problems faced by public-sector workers as the private sector grows steadily meaner aren't going away, whatever the outcome of the immediate battles in California. When public-sector workers were first joining unions in the '60s, they were largely playing catch-up with private-sector employees. But as Wal-Mart has supplanted General Motors as America's largest private employer (and GM announced a cutback of 25,000 more workers Tuesday), it's the teachers and their public-sector cohorts who have emerged as the relatively more advantaged -- and politically exposed.

From the period of the three decades after World War II, when the long boom in the American economy was felt in every class and quadrant, we have devolved into a nation of separate economies -- increasingly insecure private-sector workers, a public sector where the guarantees of the New Deal order still pertain and a stratum of mega-rich whose investment income is taxed at lower rates than the incomes of those who work for a living. If we can't create more security in the private sector (and universal health insurance would be a good start), the modest security of a work life in the public sector will surely be eroded, too.
In other words, just as "globalization" and Wal-Mart are dragging down the standards and benefits once enjoyed by private sector workers, the increasingly non-unionized private sector is threatening to drag down the well-unionized public sector to their level.
And as far as I can tell, there's one and only one way to "create more security in the private sector" and avoid the race to the bottom: Organize the private sector.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:17 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

June 08, 2005

Labor Unions: The Folks That Brought You The Middle Class

(Reprinted From Confined Space)

File this under "Why We Need Unions."

The Wall St. Journal had a front page article yesterday about how it's becoming increasingly difficult for workers with limited education to start a job at an entry level and use in-house training opportunities to gain promotions that would eventually push them into the middle class. (The article is for registered WSJ subscribers only.)

The article itself was interesting, but probably most interesting was the positive things the Journal had to say about unions:

The MTA was once full of jobs like motor inspector or turnstile repairman -- jobs that a person with limited education could jump to with some training. As in the corporate world, many of those jobs have disappeared, often because technology upgrades mean fewer people are needed. At the MTA, for example, new subway cars last 138,000 miles between overhauls, compared with 8,000 miles in 1982. Around the system, the jobs that do open often require a college education and computer skills.

Overall, the pace of hiring has slowed since the 1980s, as the MTA reduced its staff by 13%, to 48,000. When the MTA does fill new jobs, it is less likely to promote from within because it believes it will attract better talent on the outside. In the 1990s, insiders got half the new jobs; today they get fewer than 40%. Car cleaners used to have the inside track for promotion to motorman, tower operator and token-booth clerk. Since 2001, those jobs have been thrown open to outsiders.

"For too many of our people, entry-level no longer means entry-level. It means dead-end," says Rodney Glenn, director of training for Transport Workers Union Local 100, to which 30,000 MTA employees belong.
Part of the reason that the advancement opportunities are disappearing is that the power of labor unions is disappearing.
Traditionally, unions helped unskilled workers attain middle-class lives. But organized labor now represents only 11% of the work force, down from one-third in the 1950s. The fastest-growing unions, in the service industries, represent both low-wage workers and skilled professionals, but it's hard for members to move from one category to the other. On-the-job training may turn an orderly into a nurse's aide, but not into a nurse.

New York's MTA, with an annual operating budget of $8 billion, has been a haven for African-Americans seeking upward mobility since the 1940s, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr. joined other Harlem activists in pressing city-owned and private transit lines to hire more blacks. The Transport Workers Union's legendary president, Michael Quill (1905-66), was active in the civil-rights movement and once brought Martin Luther King Jr. to address workers, then mostly white, on the subject. Today, about half of the membership of the union's Local 100 are either African-Americans or West Indians. The local's president, Roger Toussaint, arrived in New York from Trinidad in 1974 and started at the MTA as a subway cleaner, as did several of the top MTA managers with whom he negotiates.

.Even in their weakened state, however, unions are still about the only means for workers to move up:

In 2002, the MTA started requiring that new entrants in the subway-car maintenance program either have a recent degree from a vocational high school or a community-college degree in technology because so many jobs demand electronic skills. Ms. Beatty, with her 20-year-old diploma from a regular high school, probably wouldn't make the cut today.

Over the past four years, the training center has graduated just 40 apprentices for various skilled jobs, with fewer than a dozen of those graduates coming from the Transport Workers Union. Three months ago, under pressure from the union, the MTA started a new subway-inspector training course with 13 students, all from the union's ranks. Of the 13, six are former cleaners, and all of them have the technical degrees. The others came from skilled jobs such as forklift operator or signalman's assistant.


Both sides agree that improved productivity at a system that was once notorious for breakdowns and graffiti has reduced the pool of new jobs to which cleaners and security guards can aspire. Staff at a big maintenance depot in Coney Island has been cut to 650 workers from 1,000 over the past five years. When the MTA replaced subway tokens with prepaid Metro Cards, 120 skilled-machinist positions were eliminated, estimates the union. It persuaded the MTA to retrain the workers to repair card-vending machines.

The distressing thing is that at the same time that rising health care costs, globalization, the disappearance of well-paying industrial jobs, and bankruptcy legislation are all consipring to knock more and more people out of the middle class, more barriers are being raised to keep people from climbing up into the middle class. Meanwhile, the historical force that knocked down those barriers -- the labor movement -- is itself declining into ineffectiveness.

I think if I was the President, or a congressional representative, I might be concerned about some of these issues.

And speaking of those who are really concerned, check out speeches by Bill Moyers and John Edwards at the Taking Back America Conference last week. And while you're at it check out the other speeches too.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:44 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

June 06, 2005

A Crime Wave Ignored

The newspapers and bloggers will ritualistically invoke the need for the minimum wage, but the pervasive stories of abuse and -- emphasize -- CRIMINAL ACTIVITY involving violating minimum wage laws almost never gets the attention of coin scandals in Ohio or which anti-multilateral action idiot the Bush adminstration will appoint to the UN.

Yet down the street from almost every journalist and every blogger, PREVENTABLE crime is happening.  Workers are having their wages stolen.   Kudos to Steven Greenhouse at the NYTIMES for this piece where he emphasizes how horrifically mundane these crimes are every day:

For many workers in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the possibility of receiving the legally required time and a half for overtime, even when they work 80-hour weeks, seems as likely as winning the lottery.

"They always told us work faster, faster, and the money was really bad," said Deisi Cortes, who worked as a stocker at Super Star 99 until April when she was fired, she said, for being pregnant. "We'd ask for a raise, and all they'd say is, 'Maybe later on.' "

'It's pretty stunning the extent to which stores here break wage and hour laws," said Deborah Axt, a lawyer with Make the Road by Walking, an immigrant advocacy group in Bushwick. "The violations seem epidemic."

Yet our national leaders allow this criminal activity to continue.  Forget the inside-DC stuff that most Americans don't really care about.  Talk about individuals illegally victimized by bosses stealing their wages.  Talk about politicians who sanction this crime through ineffective laws and ineffective enforcement.  That is a tough, progressive message that should be harped on daily.

Posted by Nathan at 07:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 03, 2005

Black Leaders Have Own Position in AFL Fight

With a breakup of the AFL-CIO looming, every group is asserting its own voice on key issues, and one of the most important is the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. In the Black Commentator, a piece Black Labor Calls for New 'Gary' Convention lays out dissent by black unionists over both the SEIU-led coalition proposals and the status quo of the Sweeney leadership.

I'll have more to say on this in the next few days, but unlike some who worry this internal fighting will undermine labor, I think it's releasing a healthy airing of issues that labor needs to address to get stronger. In its history, labor has often made its greatest strides at the same time it's been kneedeep in intra-union warfare.

Posted by Nathan at 11:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Illinois Passes Slew of Pro-Labor Legislation

Pre-Schwartzennegger, it was California that was the innovator on new progressive legislation.  Now it's Illinois.  Check out the highlights from this legislative session (full BNA article below):

Jason Keller, legislative director for the Illinois AFL-CIO, said workers' rights to communicate their grievances during a labor dispute were enhanced under H.B. 1480. The legislation spells out strikers' rights with respect to public rights of way during a job action. "This came up because unions, particularly in the building trades, were finding that municipalities were forcing them off of rights of way," Keller told BNA June 2. "This is common sense legislation that permits picketers to make their views known while taking public safety into account."...

Both labor and the business community applauded passage of H.B. 2137, which significantly revises Illinois' workers' compensation system...Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said he would sign the bill, stressing that it would cut costs to business, increase benefits to injured workers, and curtail fraud...

Keller said organized labor also benefited from the passage of a pair of bills seeking to enhance enforcement of the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act. H.B. 1370 creates new penalties against contractors and subcontractors violating prevailing wage provisions. A companion bill, H.B. 188, establishes new payroll reporting requirements to assist the state department of labor in prevailing wage investigations...

The Illinois Nurses Association won two victories on behalf of its members that are expected to enhance workplace safety and ease overtime burdens. On May 30, both legislative houses passed H.B. 399, which creates the Health Care Setting Violence Prevention Act...The program will require the facilities to implement violence prevention training and formal violence prevention plans...

INA also applauded passage of S.B. 201 May 20. The legislation amends various laws affecting Illinois hospitals in order to prohibit mandatory overtime for nurses. The measure was portrayed as an attempt to improve patient safety. INA and other groups have argued that the risk of medical errors increases significantly when nurses are required to work excessive overtime hours.

This is what progressive policy should look like-- concern for workers in sectors across the economy.


By Michael Bologna

 CHICAGO -- The Illinois General Assembly wrapped up its spring legislative session May 31, approving a list of labor-supported measures designed to bolster the rights of strikers, strengthen prevailing wage enforcement, and reform the workers' compensation system. 

In addition, the Legislature passed a pair of bills designed to protect the interests of nurses and other health care workers. One bill establishes violence prevention programs for Illinois mental health care facilities and the other limits the degree to which nurses can be required to work overtime. 

Jason Keller, legislative director for the Illinois AFL-CIO, said workers' rights to communicate their grievances during a labor dispute were enhanced under H.B. 1480. The legislation spells out strikers' rights with respect to public rights of way during a job action. 

"This came up because unions, particularly in the building trades, were finding that municipalities were forcing them off of rights of way," Keller told BNA June 2. "This is common sense legislation that permits picketers to make their views known while taking public safety into account." 

H.B. 1480 amends the Illinois Labor Dispute Act to permit workers engaged in job actions to use public rights of way to apprise the public of the existence of a labor dispute. It further permits the erection of temporary signs discussing the dispute, the parking of vehicles on public rights of way, and the erection of tents and other temporary shelters for the health, welfare, and safety of picketers. 

The measure, however, bars signage, tents, and shelters that obscure traffic signals or interfere with drivers' views of traffic. The bill also requires that picketers maintain a reasonable walkway for use by pedestrians. H.B. 1480 passed the House May 27 by a vote of 110-6. The measure passed the Senate May 19 by a vote of 40-14. 

Both labor and the business community applauded passage of H.B. 2137, which significantly revises Illinois' workers' compensation system. The measure passed the House May 27 with only two negative votes. Keller called the bill organized labor's "crowning achievement during the legislative session." 

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said he would sign the bill, stressing that it would cut costs to business, increase benefits to injured workers, and curtail fraud. 

"By working closely together, we have crafted this agreement that helps set a medical fee schedule to contain costs, increases important workers' benefits, cracks down on fraud, and cuts the time it takes to resolve claims," Blagojevich said in a statement following passage of H.B. 2137. "Everybody wanted to do what is best for Illinois, and these fundamental changes in the workers' compensation system work for everybody. I look forward to signing them into law." 

A key feature of H.B. 2137 is cost containment through a medical fee schedule. The bill permits Illinois to join 42 other states in creating such a schedule indexed to the consumer price index. The schedule is expected to save Illinois millions of dollars annually. 

At the same time, worker benefits will increase under H.B. 2137. The minimum benefit for workers killed on the job will be boosted to the greater of either $ 500,000 or 25 years of payments. Currently the benefit is $ 400,000 or 20 years of payments. Burial benefits also were increased from $ 4,200 to $ 8,000 for fatally injured workers. 

In addition, the measure establishes a workers' compensation fraud investigation unit within the state department of financial and professional regulation's division of insurance. It also creates a new panel within the workers' compensation commission to resolve disputed claims on an expedited basis. 

Prevailing Wage Enforcement. 

Keller said organized labor also benefited from the passage of a pair of bills seeking to enhance enforcement of the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act. H.B. 1370 creates new penalties against contractors and subcontractors violating prevailing wage provisions. A companion bill, H.B. 188, establishes new payroll reporting requirements to assist the state department of labor in prevailing wage investigations. 

"These bills really help the Department of Labor and bargaining units determine whether the contractor is legitimately paying the prevailing wage," Keller said. "We've heard for a long time that the Department of Labor has had trouble enforcing prevailing wage because it didn't have all the information." 

H.B. 1370, which cleared the legislature May 12, raises the penalties against contractors and subcontractors failing to pay the stipulated rates on jobs covered by the Prevailing Wage Act. Violations for second-time or subsequent offenders would be characterized as Class A misdemeanors instead of Class B misdemeanors. In addition, monetary penalties due the state and the affected workers for such offenses would be raised. 

H.B. 188, which passed both legislative chambers May 26, would assist in prevailing wage investigations by requiring contractors and subcontractors to submit certified payroll reports monthly to the public bodies directing the projects. The measure also creates penalties for contractors and subcontractors that fail to submit such reports or file false reports. 

Lawmakers also brought significant reform to the state's various public employee pension funds by passing S.B. 27. The measure imposes some discipline over the state's $ 43 billion pension liability through system modifications aimed primarily at future retirees and new hires. Although the measure does not cure all of the liability problems affecting public pensions in Illinois, the plan is expected to save the system $ 30 billion over 40 years. 

The reforms initiated under S.B. 27 include a 6 percent cap on end-of-career salary increases for teachers and school administrators; standardization of the interest rate granted annually on pensions administered by the State University Retirement System; and the elimination of lump-sum awards for unearned sick leave used historically to boost pensions. 

Both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly passed S.B. 27 May 29. Blagojevich signed the measure June 1. It is now known as Public Act 94-04. 

"We began this legislative session with a very ambitious agenda. We set out to fundamentally change and reform the way the pension system works. That's what we did today," Blagojevich said in a statement following passage of the bill. 

Violence Prevention in Mental Health Facilities. 

The Illinois Nurses Association won two victories on behalf of its members that are expected to enhance workplace safety and ease overtime burdens. 

On May 30, both legislative houses passed H.B. 399, which creates the Health Care Setting Violence Prevention Act. The measure creates a two-year pilot violence prevention program involving five state mental health treatment facilities. The program will require the facilities to implement violence prevention training and formal violence prevention plans. Following the pilot program, the legislation would require all state mental health facilities to implement violence prevention systems. 

"Without H.B. 399, future nurses may have opted for alternate, safer career paths, thus further inflating the current shortage of quality professional nurses," INA executive director Tom Renkes said. "This bill protects not just our nurses today, but the nursing profession as a whole." 

Ban on Mandatory Overtime. 

INA also applauded passage of S.B. 201 May 20. The legislation amends various laws affecting Illinois hospitals in order to prohibit mandatory overtime for nurses. The measure was portrayed as an attempt to improve patient safety. INA and other groups have argued that the risk of medical errors increases significantly when nurses are required to work excessive overtime hours. 

"S.B. 201 is a huge benefit for the Illinois Nurses Association because it not only puts our patients' safety first and foremost, it will also help in retaining and recruiting professional nurses back to the work force," INA government relations chair Mildred Taylor said in a statement. 

S.B. 201 prevents hospitals from requiring nurses to work more than four hours beyond their normal work shift, even in emergency scenarios. The bill also protects nurses from disciplinary actions and other adverse employment actions resulting from their refusal to work overtime beyond four hours. 
Posted by Nathan at 07:26 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Spitzer Takes Down Racist Agencies

One more reason why I'm genuinely excited at the prospect of Elliott Spitzer becoming governor: an investigation and settlement with eight racist employment agencies to end discriminatory placement of domestic workers:

Spitzer said in a statement that an investigation began last December found the agencies routinely solicited racial preferences from prospective employers and used that information to keep people from being referred for certain jobs. Some of the agencies openly noted "no blacks," "no islanders" and "prefers Europeans" in their internal records, he said. The eight firms, Spitzer said, have signed consent decrees in federal court that require them to stop asking applicants about their race or recording it on an application; stop soliciting race and ancestry from prospective employers and cease making job referrals based on race or ancestry. The companies also will provide training and information to staff about anti-discrimination laws and the obligations of employment agencies, he said. The eight firms also will pay a total of $118,000 in costs and penalties for civil rights violations.
Like a whole range of "grey" industries, domestic workers live in a world of labor violations and few rights. Spitzer's office has continually fought on behalf of such workers in a range of industries. With the far larger resources of the governor's office, working people in New York will hopefully see a reversal of the Pataki indifference to corporate crime against workers rights.
Posted by Nathan at 07:21 AM | Comments (19) | TrackBack